Reginald A. Ray is an American Buddhist scholar and teacher who started practicing Tibetan Buddhism while pursuing his PhD in Religious Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
After years of studying under Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (whom Ray met upon his initial arrival to the United States in 1970), he became a senior teacher in the Kagyu-Nyingma lineage. He assisted Chögyam Trungpa with the founding of Naropa University and taught there for many years.
He now acts as President and Spiritual Director of the Dharma Ocean Foundation, a meditation community that he co-founded in 2005. Along the way, he has authored many scholarly publications on the history and traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.
Below is an excerpt from his newest book, The Awakening Body, which focuses on the somatic aspects of Tibetan Buddhist meditation practices.
The Awakening Body is about the practice of meditation when it is approached as an essentially somatic discipline—that is, when the body rather than the mind becomes the fundamental arena of meditation practice. What might it mean to engage in this type of “Somatic Meditation”? Most simply put, rather than trying to develop meditation through our left-brain, thinking mind in a “top-down” manner, as is the case with most contemporary approaches, Somatic Meditation involves a bottom-up process. In this bottom-up approach, we are able to connect with the inherent, self-existing wakefulness that is already present within the body itself. In contrast to contrived, conventional approaches that emphasize entry into the meditative state through the intentional thinking of the conscious mind and by following conceptual instructional templates, maps, and techniques, Somatic Meditation develops a meditative consciousness that is accessed through the spontaneous feelings, sensations, visceral intuitions, and felt senses of the body itself. We are simply trying to tune in to the basic awareness of the body. Put in the language of Buddhism, the human body is already and always abiding in the meditative state, the domain of awakening—and we are just trying to gain entry.
This kind of meditation is in many respects quite different from what is conventionally understood as “meditation” in our modern culture. Meditation approached as a somatic practice consists of two aspects. The first involves paying attention to our body, bringing our conscious intention and focus to and into our physical form. Sometimes we pay attention to individual parts of our body, even very minute parts; other times, what we are attending to is our body—or our “soma,” as I prefer to call it—as a whole. Sometimes our attention will be on physical sensations, other times on body-wide events and patterns, others again on the subtle energies that flow through our body, other times the spatial environment of our body, other times still on the physical boundary of our body, the envelope of our skin.
The second aspect of Somatic Meditation is exploring—with openness and acceptance and without any prejudice, judgment, or conscious agenda whatsoever—what we discover when we are paying attention to our body in this manner. This is no simple thing, especially since our entire conscious life as humans is typically maintained and protected by the “ego thing”—by not paying attention in this open and unrestricted way. Rather, we habitually direct our attention away from our body and its raw, infinitely expanding, unprocessed experience to our thinking mind with its labeling, judging, contextualizing, and narrativizing of more or less everything our body knows, thus severely limiting and hiding from our conscious awareness what is actually, somatically there.
So step one in Somatic Meditation is to come to and into the body and attend; and then step two is to open our consciousness into the interior wakefulness that is going on under the surface.
These two aspects of Somatic Meditation I have just described correspond to what are traditionally called “mindfulness” (shamatha) and “awareness” (vipashyana), found in virtually all forms of Buddhist meditation. In most conventional teaching of mindfulness, the body is generally left out, despite some body-focused elements such as attending to the breath or the occasional use of body scans—as in the work of the popular vipashyana meditation teacher S.N. Goenka (1924–2013). While such approaches are helpful up to a point, they are limited because for them the body is typically a stepping stone to something else, rather than being an object of exploration in and of itself. When examined on its own terms, we discover that the body has many internal dimensions that are hidden to the superficial view and many layers or levels of experience beneath the obvious sensations.
The situation in relation to meditation and the body is quite confusing because, given the increasing importance attributed to “the body” in contemporary culture these days, nearly every meditation teacher wants to say they are including the body—but such claims raise some important questions. To what extent is the body included and in what ways? Does the instruction really move us definitively away from the left-brain orientation? And has anything fundamentally changed in the practitioner’s process and maturation? Meditation that is truly somatic always implies radical change and transformation in our state of being.
The unfortunate result of underplaying the body in its totality in much mindfulness and awareness instruction is that we are not really addressing, let alone working through, the pernicious and debilitating disembodiment that afflicts virtually everyone in modern societies, a disembodiment that sabotages our physical, emotional, social, and spiritual well-being. When the meditator does not address his or her disembodiment in a fundamental and decisive way, particularly on the spiritual level, any kind of meditation carried out is more than likely to lead eventually to the complete cul-de-sac of disconnection and disassociation—a dead end from which, because of sophisticated techniques and defensive rationalizations that can be built up in the practice itself, escape is extremely difficult.
When we approach meditation as an essentially—I would almost say “purely”—somatic discipline, then everything changes. Most important, the spiritual journey is now seen not as separating oneself from “samsara”—from all that is physical, worldly, impure, and problematic—but (quite to the contrary) as a process of deeper and deeper entry into those very domains of our existence. When we do, we discover that it is precisely within the interior reality of those aspects of our fully embodied, visceral life that our most important discoveries occur, our true spiritual journey can unfold, and lasting, all-inclusive transformation is able to come about.
In fact, authentic realization can only happen when we abandon the outside standpoint of our left-brain, judging, ego mind and plunge into the innermost depths of our ordinary, unprocessed human experience. As the realized Indian tantric master Tilopa said to his uptight, ever “correct,” scholarly disciple Naropa a long time ago, “Naropa, your problem is not what you experience; it’s that you are taking the wrong approach to what you experience. You don’t know how to leave it alone.” Naropa, the paragon of all of us left-brain junkies, was trying to get rid of his pain by thinking his way out. He was trying to impose this conceptual map in an attempt to interpret, limit, and control his experience. He was striving for a fanciful nirvana where he wouldn’t have to deal with the messiness of his own life anymore. And so he was running away from the very place where, alone, genuine realization can occur.
From Awakening Body, © 2016 by Reginald A. Ray. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston, MA. www.shambhala.com.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.